In what ways could The Scarlet Letter be read as a commentary on the era of American history it describes? How does Hawthorne’s portrayal of Europe enter into this commentary? Could the book also be seen as embodying some of the aspects it attributes to the nation in which it was written?
Answers 1Add Yours
Typically, America is conceptualized as a place of freedom, where a person’s opportunities are limited only by his or her ambition and ability—and not by his or her social status, race, gender, or other circumstances of birth. In the Puritan society portrayed in the novel, however, this is not the case. In fact, it is Europe, not America, that the book presents as a place of potential. There, anonymity can protect an individual and allow him or her to assume a new identity. This unexpected inversion leads the characters and the reader to question the principles of freedom and opportunity usually identified with America. Hester’s experiences suggest that this country is founded on the ideals of repression and confinement. Additionally, the narrator’s own experiences, coming approximately two hundred years after Hester’s, confirm those of his protagonist. His fellow customs officers owe their jobs to patronage and family connections, not to merit, and he has acquired his own position through political allies. Thus, the customhouse is portrayed as an institution that embodies many of the principles that America supposedly opposes.
Much of the social hypocrisy presented in the book stems from America’s newness. Insecure in its social order, the new society is trying to distance itself from its Anglican origins yet, at the same time, reassure itself of its legitimacy and dignity. It is a difficult task to “define” oneself as a land of self-defining individuals. But it is this project of defining America that Hawthorne himself partially undertakes in his novel. He aims to write a text that both embodies and describes “Americanness.”
the scarlet letter